The Tawny Owls Of The Croft
Walk along The East-West branch of The Croft of an evening, and if you are lucky, you will hear our beloved owls hooting in the Beech trees above in the grounds of Headington House.
They are a survival of times when Headington was a village surrounded by countryside – but unlike the old adage about children should be seen but not heard, they are heard but not seen.
They are a comforting, homely presence, redolent of fairy tales and times gone by, preserving something of a rural atmosphere in “the village in a city” that is yet Old Headington. Their ongoing presence is very probably due to their loyalty to nesting sites alone, while the countryside all around has been gobbled up by urban infill.
They cling on, but face a number of severe threats to their very existence, which we, as a community can do much to mitigate…so please read on.
The Tawny Owls – The Movie
Click below to listen to the tawny Owls of The Croft as they take us on a tour of Old Headington by night – it’s a hoot!
Tips: Click images and movie to go to full screen, right arrow to go to next, increase sound to maximum, and click the full screen button in the right hand corner if necessary.
The Tawny Owl, (Strix aluco) known also as the “Beech Owl” [FN6] has at least ten basic calls and the young five, these include “hoos”, “Kewicks” and “eeries”, the call heard here is:
“The familiar ‘hoo’ first uttered as a protracted monosyllable, followed by a long pause, then a faint monosyllable, a short pause, and finally a long, soft quaver, falling in pitch” (World Owl Trust)
If you listen to the recording above you will hear the sound described above, as well as what appears to be a duet at one point.
The female is generally 20% – 40% bigger than the male. Owls remain with their partners for life, year round, although some males are bigamous.
The Tawny Owl is regarded as a common species, at least in rural areas, living throughout Eurasia eating woodland rodents, birds, earthworms and beetles. In urban areas, birds make up a larger proportion of the diet.
They capture their prey by gliding silently and fiercely attacking intruders, including, rarely, humans who venture too close to their young.
Habitat at The Croft
Tawny Owls prefer ancient deciduous woodland, which the Beech treelines of the John Radcliffe, Headington House and to a degree, Bury Knowle Park and the other Headington Villas, generally built in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, emulate.
Nests are not made but situated in holes and hollows of trees, with pellets and feathers accumulating over the long breeding season which can include two broods in a year.
We cannot therefore be certain that the owls actually do nest in The Croft trees, but it appears highly probable based on the high level of activity.
The currently high level of hooting (Sept 2014) is due to owls establishing their territories at this time of the year, young who fail to find a territory may die. Screeching to defend the territory is to be anticipated!
Tawny Owls show remarkable loyalty to their nesting sites, with well documented evidence of generations of owls occupying the same nesting sites for centuries, therefore they represent an important part of the rural heritage of Old Headington.
A painting by Malchair of 1773 shows land of The Croft (E-W) as a village green on the land now occupied by Laurel Farm Close, of which the land at the back of The White Hart is the very last remnant as can be seen:
http://headingtonheritage.org/c18-headington-by-malchair/ (“A View Of Headington”)
The wall and its treeline date from the construction of Headington House between 1775 and 1783 for William Jackson of Jackson’s Oxford Journal. [FN4] although some trees are 270 years old, therefore predating the house.
Local Threats – Can They Survive?
Once source indicates a decline in the UK from 50,000 to 19,000 pairs (2007), others speak of an overall increase in numbers in their range.
Locally, we can speculate they nest more out of loyalty than choice, they are known to have had presence in The Croft for a long time.
Green space has been severely reduced by urban infill, of which the losses of Barton Cricket Ground, and Barton Park are but recent examples of centuries of increasing urbanisation and consequential habitat loss.
Overall Headington has less than 60% of the Oxford City Council city wide green space target of 5.75 H.A. per 1000 people. (FN1, Green Space articles)
Further, from an ecological perspective, the little remaining green space in Headington is very poorly managed.
Most of the few large remaining green spaces – Bury Knowle Park, The John Radcliffe, Headington School and large private gardens overwhelmingly consist of lawn and playing fields mown within an inch of their life, with flowers and shrubs chosen for ornamentation rather than their ecological benefit.
Generally these spaces are over-managed -Victorian attitudes to neatness, nature and wildlife seem to yet persist to the detriment of local wildlife.
Verges such as Cuckoo Lane, St Andrew’s Road and Barton Lane which could sustain wildflowers, are ruthlessly cut down in spring by Council mowers before the first wildflower has been able to germinate, degrading the ecosystem at its very base.[FN3]
The ongoing works to these trees, particularly as this necessarily involves work on older, bigger and sicker trees which have hollows for nesting, is of concern, although, at the time of writing (Sept 2014), there is no decline in overall activity.
Cats without bells killing songbirds compete for food, as negligent owners fail to ensure their cats do as little damage as possible to the local wildlife.
We the community, The Council, landowners and gardeners can do much to help to help wildlife survive in Headington.
Owners of green spaces can introduce ecologically friendly management practices, such as planting native wildflower species and trees, delaying mowing, maximising the areas left wild, enabling insects to flourish and so through the ecosystem to benefit apex predators such as our beloved owls.
The Council can support Alan Titchmarsh’s Verge Plantlife Campaign to preserve wildflowers by not cutting verges until at least the end of August each year. [FN3]
Owl nesting boxes are generally well used when provided, although any owls would still require adequate food to survive.
Screeching, hooting, up all night, the Tawny Owls make very loveable neighbours, but with ever decreasing surrounding habitat, coupled with extremely poor ecological management of Headington’s green spaces and other threats means we must fear for their future, let’s do what we can…
Saving Headington’s Heritage
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A Note on the Author
Headington Heritage writes in a personal capacity – search engines give the ability, but not the right, for all to intrude into other’s affairs that simply don’t concern them.
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– See the articles “How Oxford City Council lost 11,000 Citizens – and Why It Matters” and “The Headington and Barton Green Space Catastrophe – the Council’s Great Green Grab” from the Green Space menu of this blog.
 The Council is reviewing its mowing and park management strategies
 Alan Titchmarch’s Plantlife : http://www.plantlife.org.uk/roadvergecampaign
 To which we can add:
Billy hooter, brown owl, brown hoolet, brown ullert, common brown owl, ferny hoolet, Gilly hooter, golden owl, grey (gray) owl, hill hooter, hollering owl, hoot owl, howlett, ivy owl, Jenny howlett, Jinny yewlet, screech owl, tawny hooting owl, ullet, wood owl and wood ullat.
Many thanks are extended to the websites below, any mistakes are the author’s alone. Use does not imply endorsement of views expressed in this article.
The author had prior no knowledge of owls.
Thanks yet again to Stephanie Jenkins for her excellent web site where more information about Headington can be found at:
Very many thanks to the photographers who have been kind enough to permit reuse of their images and share the fruits of their labours via Creative Commons licensing. Images are not of Headington’s owls.
The following statement is in fulfilment of the licence conditions:
“All images have been inserted without modification. Headington Heritage is a purely non-commercial site for the promotion and preservation of Headington’s rich heritage. Inclusion does not imply endorsement of this article.”
Credits and Creative Commons license restrictions appear on each image, copyright resides with the authors.
Sound Recording Comments
The recording of the owls was obtained by holding up a mobile phone at the sound of the owls from The Croft. The following changes were made:
- Background white noise, cars and clicks were filtered out (mostly!)
- All main hoots were increased in volume to the maximum gain, so some quieter hoots are the same volume as louder ones, this is due to the poor quality of the original recording.
- The mini hoots that precede the main one were not increased much as these are naturally quieter
- Gaps between hoots were shortened, reducing overall time from approx. 2:55 to 1:30
Oxford, Headington Heritage, Old Headington, Headington History, Headington Hill, Tawny Owls, green space.